What is assertiveness?
There is often the misconception that assertiveness means being aggressive, demanding or steam rolling over people – this can’t be further from the truth. Assertiveness is a skill that allows you to clearly express your needs, opinions and feelings in a firm but gentle manner without infringing on the rights of others. It entails standing up for yourself and sometimes saying ‘no’ without being blaming or judgmental whilst communicating high levels of understanding to the other person.
When do you lack assertiveness?
In order to know whether you might lack assertiveness you can answer the following questions: Do you avoid conflict? Do you find it hard to stand up for yourself? Do you tend to put other’s needs and feelings first, sometimes to your own detriment? Do you often feel disrespected or like people don’t take you seriously? Do you bend over backwards to please others? If you answered “yes” on some of the questions above, you might lack effective assertiveness skills.
The impact of a lack of assertiveness
The impact of a lack of assertiveness on mental health, job satisfaction and relationships has not received the attention it requires, in my opinion. As a Clinical Psychologist who have been working in government hospitals for a few years prior to and whilst being in private practice, I have been struck with how common a lack of assertiveness is and the immense impact it can have on people’s health and happiness across socioeconomic contexts. Instead of dwelling on the effect of not being assertive, it might be more beneficial to look at the benefits of being assertive.
Benefits of being assertive:
1. An increase in self-esteem/confidence
From an interactional point of view, how we see ourselves (our self-esteem) is largely based on feedback from the environment. It is a chicken-or- egg situation: If you act in a manner that constitutes a low self-esteem – that is what others in our environment will respond to ,but you might act with low self-esteem in the first place due to what others in your environment have told you. Either way it becomes a negative cycle until you decide to change your Assertiveness and confidence hence goes hand in hand. If you assert yourself by expressing your opinion, your needs and feelings effectively you will exude confidence and worthiness.
2. Getting your needs met
You might think that you already have mutually satisfying relationships in that it makes you happy to put loved ones’ or colleagues’ needs first, however in the long haul you will end up feeling resentful and used. If you continue to put them first and not communicating your expectations, they won’t know what you require from them and you will be setting them up for failure. Loved ones and colleagues cannot fulfil needs they are not aware of. Our satisfaction and happiness in relationships relies largely on whether our needs are met. Assertiveness entails identifying your needs and communicating it in a way that others would want to fulfil it, which in turn will make you feel happier.
3. Less anxiety
The link between anxiety and assertiveness was first identified by the behaviourist and psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe in the form of reciprocal inhibition. If a response opposite to anxiety can be created in the presence of what evokes the anxiety it can suppress an anxiety response. Assertiveness has been found to be one of the behaviours that suppresses anxiety. Hence if you are assertive you will be less prone to present with anxiety.
4. Being taken seriously
If you tend to change your opinion often to make it fit with others’ or end up agreeing to everything, chances are that people will not take you seriously and will take advantage of you. If you have ever been in that position you would know the feeling is disempowering and makes one feel inadequate. Acting in an assertive manner will change this as assertiveness is all about acting in a self-assured manner, expressing opinions that might differ from someone else, asking for what you need and saying “no”.
5. More time and energy
As stated above, assertiveness entails saying ‘no’ to things you don’t want to do. There is a range of different techniques on how to say ‘no’ without using the actual word. The consequence of saying ‘no’ will be to have more time and energy for what you WANT to do and not what you feel you HAVE to. Or when the context is not appropriate to say ‘no’ i.e. saying no to your boss, assertiveness will entail negotiating with the environment in a way that you will still end up with more time and energy.
6. Not being scared of conflict
Conflict is part of life and thus inevitable – shying away from it will become unsustainable and exhausting. If you are able to assert yourself effectively, a conflict situation will be reframed for you from being “dangerous” to it being an opportunity to use your skills.
Leandri Beyers is a registered Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice in Johannesburg and the founder and trainer of the “6 Week Assertiveness Training for Beginners“.